Friday, November 18, 2005

The Sort of Christmas Music That Invites Debate
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto
James Brown

People of good will (and good taste) cannot disagree that James Brown's 1968 album A Soulful Christmas is one of the best Christmas albums of all time. Nor can they disagree that "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto" is a great Christmas song.

Not to be dogmatic or anything. It's just a fact. And if you don't think it's a great Christmas song, I will fight you. That's no lie. [/gratuitous Anchorman reference]

To be sure, it's one of the best "socially conscious" Christmas songs, the top of a short list that probably includes John & Yoko's "Happy Christmas" and not much else worth mentioning. And for a "socially conscious" song, it's not even controversial (like "Happy Christmas" is); James Brown simply begs Santa Claus not to forget the kids in the ghetto, because he remembers being a kid and wondering if Santa Claus would come. No one disputes that poverty is a bad thing. That's not the "debate" that I was referring to in the title.

No -- here's the problem. Even though it is a great Christmas song, it is not a great James Brown song, and that uncovers one of the fundamental problems of Christmas music.

At his best -- especially in this era -- James Brown could rock so hard that paper ignited, women spontaneously combusted and the only hope of stopping the inferno was the three or four quarts of sweat pouring off his body. He never rocked a Christmas song that hard. But when James Brown's a little "off," he's still a damn sight better than some other pros ever get. "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" is a good example. Despite being released and re-released as a single, it was never a "hit" -- the only James Brown Christmas song to break the Top 40 was "Santa Claus Is Here To Stay," which is slow, forgettable and common, a big lump of oatmeal in the form of a song. (Even so, it is better than the oatmeal made by most other artists, which proves the point again.) "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" definitely isn't in the top fifty best James Brown songs, not in my opinion or anyone else's.

But by Christmas music standards, it's fantastic.

So what do we make of that? Do we lower our standards for Christmastime? And is it proper to alter those standards based on the artist? Is it fair to criticize James Brown because his voluminous Christmas output was not among his best work (yet not among his worst)?

All I know is this: when I hear "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto," I want to punch Mannheim Steamroller in the face. And that can't be all bad.

 9:50 AM

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